Regular guest bloggers Carol and Jim Watson share their memories of walking the Cathar Way in springtime.
We have walked long-distance with Cicerone guides for a number of years and 2017 was no exception. Using Alan Mattingly's The Cathar Way, we set off in late April.
We took the train to Paris and then to Port-la-Nouvelle for the start. In his book Alan had described Stage 1 as 'the longest and hardest of all 12 stages'. We had taken this to heart and had chosen to divide the first two stages into four to give ourselves a more relaxing start. Our decision was more than justified as we found that in many parts the tracks or paths were very rocky and did not always lend themselves to brisk walking.
It was very hot for our first few days – very Mediterranean in feel – with wild orchids and other spring flowers lining the route. Accommodation in places was quite limited and we had booked a self-catering flat in Embres-et-Castelmaure, only to find that the village shop had closed. Fortunately, we had anticipated this and had come prepared.
An early springtime start meant a virtually empty trail
For several days we met no other hikers on the trail. It became clear later on that April was a rather early start for this walk. On the fourth day, we spotted a lone hiker from the Netherlands and together with a couple of British hikers, Adrian and Stewart, who we met later on, we had the route pretty much to ourselves.
Reaching our first castle at Aguilar made us feel that we really were en route with the Cathars.
When planning a trip such as this you make certain assumptions about the route and hope that you have all the information you need. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. We reached a planned crossing of the wide River Agly (described on page 79 of the book) only to find that the bridge was no more. Fortunately, we were able to use the hiker’s usual fall back, and waded across the river, something not to be contemplated after rain!
At times, we modified the route by taking village tracks shown on the map, not always sticking exactly to the marked route. This gave us other accommodation options and on one day we were able to take in an additional castle at Montaillou, a particularly important Cathar stronghold, on the way passing through meadows filled with wild daffodils.
It was at Comus at the end of Alan's Stage 9 that the full implications of starting early in the year were realised.
Evening rain turned to snow overnight and we awoke to a picture-perfect winter scene, bright blue skies and the whole landscape had changed from green to white.
Fortunately, our route was still quite clear and even the Frau Gorge did not present any further additional worries.
We stayed at Montségur overnight and had plenty of time to visit the castle. As the guidebook suggests, if you wish to visit the castles along the route, you do need to add in sufficient time to your planning in order to do so.
Our penultimate day proved to be very wet but our accommodation was well prepared for this and provided a room for drying our boots and waterproofs and, more importantly, a sumptuous meal.
A good long-distance hike deserves a good ending and we were so pleased that the last day was warm with sunny intervals. Foix is a perfect final destination, with a castle to be enjoyed at leisure before catching the train home.
So, thank you once again Cicerone for providing the inspiration to visit this scenically beautiful and historically rich area. 2018? Well, we have Alex Kendall's The Snowdonia Way firmly in our sights.
Cycling the Canal du Midi
Across Southern France from Toulouse to Sete
Guide to cycling the Canal du Midi in southern France, 240km from Toulouse in the Haute Garonne to Sète on the Mediterranean Coast. The flat, picturesque route is divided into five stages, each around 50km long. Includes detours to sights close to the canal as well as longer excursions, including Narbonne, Minerve, Carcassone and Béziers.More information